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The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea Paperback – January 31, 1976
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The Great Chain of Being, employed as a title, would have suggested…what was 'probably the most widely familiar conception of the general scheme of things'―the idea of a world in which every being was related to every other in a continuously graded scale, with no possible form of diversity missing. Pursuing the biography of this idea through more than two thousand years, the distinguished author of these lectures makes clear its amazing influence on the thought and history of the Western World… Intellectual vigor, critical precision and an amazing knowledge of what mankind has thought and desired in other ages distinguishes this book. No student of the history of literature, science, or philosophy may well neglect it. (Clifford Barrett New York Times Book Review)
One of the great books of our generation. (Marjorie Nicolson American Scholar)
A fascinating and moving book… Everyone interested in the larger ironies of human history should read [it]. (Ernest Nagel New Republic)
Men are galvanized by ideas and act as vehicles for them… Such a ruling idea is that of the great chain of being. Prof. Lovejoy's study records the birth, the growth, the vicissitudes, transformations, and finally the senility, and perhaps the death of this idea. The study is as fascinating as that of the rise and decay of an empire, and, in fact, it is the study of the empire of an idea over human minds throughout many centuries… Prof. Lovejoy's approach is fresh and different… The learning exhibited in this book is vast. (Raphael Demos Modern Language Notes)
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'Men are galvanized by ideas and act as vehicles for them ...Such a ruling idea is that of the great chain of being. Prof. Lovejoy's study records the birth, the growth, the vicissitudes, transformations, and finally the senility, and perhaps the death of this idea. The study is as fascinating as that of the rise and decay of an empire, and, in fact, it is the study of the empire of an idea over human minds throughout many centuries...Prof. Lovejoy's approach is fresh and different.' Modern Language Notes
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Lovejoy often cites Plotinus's Enneads (translated by the accomplished scholar of Neoplatonism John M. Dillon in The Enneads: Abridged Edition (Classics S)). The other major Neoplatonic philosopher whose writings exist is Proclus, who is mentioned much less often by Lovejoy. Several of Proclus's works and commentaries survive: his commentaries on Plato's Republic, Timaeus and Parmenides, his commentary on Euclid, and his The Elements of Theology: A Revised Text with Translation, Introduction, and Commentary (Clarendon Paperbacks); this last work is probably his most relevant to the Great Chain of Being, and is translated by the great classicist E. R. Dodds. The other major book from late antiquity cited by Dodds is Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works (Classics of Western Spirituality (Paperback)).
Carl Linnaeus writes in his February 25, 1747 letter to Johann George Gmelin (Linnaeus' entire correspondence is online in the original Latin): "Sed quaero a Te et Toto orbe differentiam genericam inter hominem et Simiam, quae ex principiis Historiae naturalis. Ego certissime nullam novi. Utinam aliquis mihi unicam diceret!" (But I seek from you and the whole world a generic difference between man and ape based on the principles of natural history. Certainly I have found none. If only someone could tell me one!)
In following the ideas in this book further, I next plan to read E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture: A Study of the Idea of Order in the Age of Shakespeare, Donne and Milton and Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance.
Summary of the Idea
At the top of the chain is pure Being. At the bottom is pure nothingness. Further, Good is coterminous with Being. Thirdly, good is self-diffusive. So far this isn’t too bad. It becomes tricky when it becomes “ontologized.” a) the line between Creator and creature is fuzzy; b) if something is lower on the chain, is it less good? What’s the difference between less good and bad?
If there is an infinite distance between God and not-God, and all of this is placed on a “scale” or chain, then is there not an infinite distance between each link in the scale? This was Dr Samuel Johnson’s critique, and it highlighted the problem of the chain of being: reality had to be static and exist all at once. This called creation into question, since if the Good is necessarily self-diffusive, then it had to diffuse into creation. God had no freedom to do otherwise. Ironically, this Idea also called evolution into question: if there is an infinite distance between the links, then there is no changing from one link to another.
This book’s value lies in its being a prime example of clear, penetrating thinking. In each chapter Lovejoy presents a new difficulty with the idea of a chain of being and the force is cumulative. The chain functions as a snapshot of the God-world relationship. Since God is perfect, and the chain is a diffusion of his goodness, and since God is eternally perfect, then we must see this eternal perfection. If not, we have to find “the missing link” (and is not evolution a mere temporalizing of the chain?)